Here is my fifth annual look at the films of 50 years ago, highlighting those that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Longer reviews are available on my blog, Go-Go-Rama.
1961 was the year John F. Kennedy implored us to “ask what we could do for our country,” Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and, most importantly, a blogger calling himself by the absurd name of Jackrabbit Slim was born.
At the movies, family films were king: One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the highest grossing film, and the top ten was full of other innocuous fare like The Parent Trap, Blue Hawaii, and Lover Come Back. But, somewhat unbelievably, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was sixth that year.
The nominees for Best Picture were:
Fanny directed by Joshua Logan, is one those pictures that nobody makes any more, and for good reason. It was based on a Broadway musical, but had all the songs removed. Leslie Caron plays the title role, a girl who gets knocked up by a young man who heads off to sea not knowing her condition, so she marries a rich old goat (Maurice Chevalier), who accepts the child as his own. I was bored cross-eyed by this, and can only conclude that the Francophilia that somehow launched Gigi to the Best Picture Oscar three years older was still at work in the Academy.
The Guns of Navarone is a classic example of the “mission” picture–story fuel for boys everywhere to use in playing with their G.I. Joes and army men. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn headed a team of saboteurs set on taking out huge guns on an island in the Aegean that blocked Allied naval traffic. It’s big and epic and a lot of fun, though the special effects, which won an Oscar, look cheesy by today’s standards. If this movie were made today it would probably be a Michael Bay extravaganza that wouldn’t have nearly the heart of the movie that was made 50 years ago.
The Hustler, directed by Robert Rossen, is the one film of the quintet that, like the Sesame Street song, “doesn’t belong.” A seedy look into the demimonde of poolrooms, it starred Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who is at odds with his own soul. Much of the film is an unqualified downer, as Newsman enters a relationship with an alcoholic, Piper Laurie, and the man who becomes his manager, George C. Scott, is one of the more venally evil characters that have been on film. Jackie Gleason is memorable as Minnesota Fats, Newman’s arch rival.
Judgment at Nuremberg is the annual Stanley Kramer socially-conscious picture that were regularities of the time period. This one concerns one of the many trials of Nazis held in Nuremberg in the post-war period, but instead of focusing on the big one, which featured Nazi leaders like Goering, writer Abby Mann centered on a trial of four judges that oversaw sending innocent people to concentration camps or undergoing involuntary sterilization. Mann deservedly won an Oscar for his script, which is heavy on talk but brilliantly so, with big speeches by most of the cast, which included big stars like Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. An unknown actor, Maximilian Schell, won Best Actor in his role as the defense attorney. A long (three hours) movie, it’s none the less gripping.
The winner in 1961 of Best Picture, and overall of 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations, was West Side Story, based on the musical which in turn was based on Romeo and Juliet. The film, viewed with 50 years of hindsight, is great for unusual reasons–it still remains one of the greatest examples of dance ever filmed. Sure, some of it is dated–the gang members wouldn’t scare anyone, and language like “daddy-o” makes it all seem quaint–but the musical numbers are still staggering in their beauty. Leonard Bernstein’s score is the greatest ever to be written for the American stage, and Jerome Robbins’ choreography is still thrilling to behold. When I was a kid my parents had the soundtrack album, and I listened to over and over again, and if I had that record today I could listen to it now. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno won the Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards for their performances in the film.
If I were a voter back then, I would have been tempted to vote for The Hustler, but ultimately would have probably gone along with the crowd and voted for West Side Story, if only for its innovation and sheer emotional power.